“A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” the headmistress of an elementary school tells the titular character of “Wadjda” and while writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour brings truth out of the statement, it isn’t for the same reason why the woman is scolding the young girl for speaking in public. Instead, it is the way that Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker to make a feature, elegantly lays bare the obstacles all women face in modern Arab society through the story of the 11-year-old who simply would like to buy a bike to ride, despite the fact women are not allowed to linger outdoors.
Like the film’s director, Wadjda finds her way around such restrictions, embarking on a quest to win her school’s Qu’ran quiz for the prize money and, in the process, shows how a little ingenuity, feistiness and support from Mom can win the day. Told simply but with incisive humor and sharp insight, “Wadjda” is both quietly subversive and strikingly beautiful and while Al-Mansour was in Los Angeles earlier this year for the L.A. Film Festival, I spoke to the filmmaker about her groundbreaking film, observing local law that made her stay inside a van to shoot the film’s outdoor scenes, and the necessity and responsibility of showing the modern Middle East to the rest of the world.
How did this film come about?
It took a lot of work. It took five years to get this film off the ground and I wrote the script because I come from a very small town in Saudi Arabia. I went to public schools all my life and I wanted to explore this part of my life in a film, so that is why I have the girl and the school and then the bicycle because I wanted to [depict] the freedom of mobility, about acceleration and about change, and I wanted to say it in a way that is not very aggressive. I just wanted to tell a story that is intimate and gentle.
I submitted the script a lot of places and I was happy that the Sundance Writers Lab in the Middle East picked it up. Financing was difficult because in the Middle East people did not believe in a simple story about a Saudi girl who wants a bicycle. Films about women in the Middle East have to be about all the horrific things [that happen to women], and I wanted producers in Europe because in Saudi Arabia, we don’t have movie theaters or a movie industry. The Arab world is not very open to films coming out of the mainstream, which is only the Egyptian or Lebanese cinema, and for me, it was important to open other markets, so I contacted every European production company that did a little bit of [films about the] Middle East and Razor Film from Berlin, who did it before with “Waltz With Bashir” and “Paradise Now,” were kind enough to us to reply and you can imagine how I felt when they said it’s pretty good.
Were there things from your own childhood that you could draw on? From what I’ve read, I thought the mixtapes of Western music Wadjda listens to might be a nod to how you watched VHS tapes of American films.
Yeah, of course! I grew up in a small town and my parents were very supportive and let me do films and whatever I wanted, but they were very traditional. I’m number 8 of 12 kids and I watched film, of course, because my father wanted to keep us calm and quiet because we were wild. [laughs]. Blockbuster was big in Saudi, so he’d go and bring a lot of VHS at the time and we would see so many films. You can imagine a small town in the U.S., so how’s a small town in Saudi? There’s nothing to do, so films were just my way to see the world and it took me on journeys. Watching “Snow White” was the happiest day of my life. It just took me away from all the little things happening, so that is why I wanted to make films later on in life because I just love it.
But then I took a lot of my childhood – the school I went to, my hometown, and everybody in that film is a person I encountered somehow. The little girl is very much based on my niece and my mother is the one I know – I just borrowed from my life and put it there.
Was this actually a process of stripping away details from the story as opposed to adding them? The simplicity seems to make it both universal and more effective.
I tried to bring a slice of life in Saudi with all its details and everything you can see there, but my main concern all through shooting and writing is to have the feelings right. Of course, I wanted the film to be celebrated back at home, so I had to be careful about what I say, what do I not say, and then within that type of constraint, I wanted to tell jokes that people can laugh at. But my concern was to make the actors transparent and tell the story with their feelings rather than acting.
The interesting thing to me as a Westerner was to see the infection of Western elements such as the songs Wadjda listens to or the “I’m a Catch” shirt she wears around the house – is there really that much of an American footprint there?
No, of course it is there. The crazy thing about Saudi Arabia is it’s a rich nation. Kids have access to the Internet and to technology, they travel every year to the U.S. and you’ll find them all over Disneyland and all over the world – in Spain, in Europe and then they go back to Saudi Arabia where they have to be very traditional. So there’s all this tension, especially with this younger generation, between modernity and tradition. You see that kids are wearing like the traditional [dresswear] and then they have sunglasses and an iPad. [laughs] For me, that is a striking image and I wanted to explore this a little more because in that way I feel a lot of people don’t understand this about Saudi. People are really traditional at heart, but underneath it all, there’s a little bit of modernity that’s happening, so it’s an exciting time now, especially with the internet and global communications changing a lot how people think.
Do you think cinema has an advantage in representing Middle Eastern culture in a way other forms of media can’t?
Of course. Part of film is that it’s entertaining and it’s visual. You can tell how much you want to tell in a book, but when people see it firsthand, it’s different. That’s one of the [reasons] why I really wanted to shoot this in [real locations in Saudi Arabia] and this is the first film to be entirely shot in Saudi, so that was really challenging. Saudi is really segregated. When we were outside, I had to be in a van because the genders are not supposed to mix outside in public space. So it was difficult, but it was very important to bring this visual, as if people are peeking into the country because there’s no image coming from Saudi Arabia. People don’t know what it looks like.
I also think because films are entertaining, they take you in two hours to a place you can never imagine. That is what happened to me when I was a kid, so I saw the world in my living room in that small town that’s not even on the map.
Shooting from a van, being unable to speak to your cast and crew directly seems like a huge challenge no matter what, but in those scenes on the streets with your child actors, was it particularly difficult?
It was very difficult and you always want to be next to the actors and feel firsthand what is going around on the set. But we would rehearse really well before [Waad Mohammed, the actress playing Wadjda] left and sum up and find the heart of the scene. It was a really good exercise for me as a filmmaker is to try to break down things to what is the core, what is really essential so she understands what it is and she really gets empowered because she understands. The little boy as well.
But I was in the back of a van screaming a lot! I had a walkie-talkie and it was challenging. But for me, it’s really important not to stop at a challenge or difficult circumstances and give up. It’s very important to say what we can and move ahead and what can we do with the current situation?
When you’re shooting the first film entirely in Saudi and you’re in uncharted waters like this, was there something surprising to you?
In Saudi, they have a lot of TV dramas and TV series, so there was a little bit of a system to lean on. It’s not a completely perfect system, but still there is a system. But it was exciting to see how Saudi Arabia changed. There’s so much openness. In some neighborhoods, people chased us out because they were very conservative. They don’t want cameras in their neighborhood and we would have to go back because it is the exact location in the script.
But there are some neighborhoods where people came out with food and water and wanted to be extras in the film. It was funny because I thought shooting in Saudi, it would always be like those neighborhoods where people don’t want us to be there, but it’s amazing there are some places where people are just open and excited, you know like everywhere else. It was really nice to see that change in the mindset and how people are more open and tolerant now.
“Wadjda” opens on September 13th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. A full list of dates and theaters can be found here.